(Photo by April Joyner)
There’s a reason Pratt’s fashion startup program is called the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator (BF+DA) — emphasis on design. A few of its residents stretch the bounds of what’s typically considered fashion.
Like a high-class 3D printing company and researcher who’s using wearable tech to bring awareness to air pollution.
Though much of the accelerator’s work is geared toward industry-wide innovation, particularly in sustainability, it also seeks to boost up-and-coming companies in the fashion industry. The accelerator, which opened in 2014, includes studio space for emerging designers, as well as a fellowship program for selected companies.
Though it’s called an accelerator, the BF+DA functions more like an incubator: it offers subsidized office and studio space, access to services such as 3D printing and knitting and mentorship from faculty and industry experts. The venture fellowship program currently hosts 17 companies, and the accelerator reviews applications on a rolling basis. Its next review round ends on December 5.
At the recent Positive Impact Awards, which honored leaders at companies such as Patagonia and Eileen Fisher for work in sustainability, we had the chance to catch up with a few of the current fellows.
Take, for instance, Austin Robey, the cofounder of Make Mode, a design studio that specializes in custom 3D printing. His company does a broad range of design work, from swag for corporate events to art for publications such as Fast Company and Esquire. But Make Mode has delved into fashion, too. For this year’s Met Gala, which had the theme “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology” (right up its alley!), it created a 3D-printed bowtie for the fashion label Public School. The bowtie was sported at the gala by Carmelo Anthony of the Knicks.
Most often, 3D printing is associated with little plastic things (though some Brooklyn companies are working on changing that), which limits its applicability to design at large. But Make Mode’s work illustrates just how detailed and ornate custom 3D printing work can get. Much of the company’s work is done in full-color sandstone.
Remarkably, the finished products come out of the printer as is: there’s no need for sanding or painting. As many companies are just beginning to experiment with 3D printing, Make Mode is pitching itself as the go-to place for local, design-focused companies in need of more sophisticated work.
“We’ve found that creative professionals that have demanding and time-sensitive projects like to go to experienced people that can control not only design but also production in one place,” Robey said.
Another of BF+DA’s venture fellows, Teknikio, makes STEM education kits for children: akin to Manhattan-based littleBits, but with a craftier sensibility. The projects in its kits include wearable accessories, such as an LED face mask, which CEO and founder Deren Guler gamely modeled for us.
Unlike classic engineering-inspired toys such as Legos, Guler said, Teknikio’s products are designed to interact with everyday objects. With one of the company’s kits, for instance, a child could soup up a cardboard model of a house with lights and sensor-activated doors. One of her goals, she added, is to create products that can appeal to both boys and girls — in other words, laying off excessive pink and frills.
“At that age, enforcing that is just making them think that’s the norm, and why shouldn’t we be breaking down all gender barriers?” she said.
It’s fitting that Teknikio’s projects include wearables, which are a common way to fuse fashion and technology. On the tech side, that has mainly involved accessories, whether it be the Apple Watch or Snap‘s new sunglasses. (We’re doing our best to erase “Glassholes” from our memory.) But, as we noted in our coverage of the Fashion Tech Forum last month, fashion brands such as Levi’s and Tommy Hilfiger are increasingly seeking out ways to infuse tech into everyday garments. A few Brooklyn companies, including Pvilion and Loomia, are working on the foundational technology to make tech-enabled fashion a regular occurrence.
BF+DA research fellow Yuchen Zhang is working toward the same goal from another angle: what might a cohesive, tech-enabled fashion collection look like? Zhang said she aims to create a bona fide brand that incorporates technology into all its products. Before launching her own studio, Zhang worked at Loomia, then known as The Crated, under its founder and CEO Madison Maxey. Zhang’s been at BF+DA just over a month, she told Technical.ly.
Besides integrating fashion and tech, Zhang is also interested in bringing awareness to environmental issues through her work. One of her projects, Illuminate, focuses on how clothing can increase visibility in smoggy areas. It’s a tiered jacket with a bright conductive ribbon that passersby are invited to touch. Touching the ribbon activates the LED lights embedded in the shirt. (Adafruit has a nice writeup explaining the underlying technology.)
“What air pollution is really about, it’s almost like you’re living through bad New York winters every single day,” Zhang explained. “It’s dim, it’s dark, it’s depressing. So I want to bring this interaction to people and literally make them bright.”